The Steamboat Arabia Museum In Kansas City, Missouri


Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Missouri’s rivers were full of steamboats. The state’s eastern boundary is delineated by the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River cuts right through the center of the state. Steamboats brought people, crops, and consumer goods across long distances much quicker than they could have made it on the crude early roads.

Steamboat pilots, including a young Mark Twain, had to have precise knowledge of the rivers because there were eddies, sandbars, and sawyers (sunken logs) ready to wreck their ship. If he managed to avoid all those dangers, the boiler could still blow up.

In 1856, the side-wheel steamboat Arabia was heading west up the Missouri River. The Arabia was a beauty. It was 171 feet long, could carry 222 tons, and had a reputation for speed, comfort and safety. That didn’t save her, though, and she hit the trunk of a submerged walnut tree. The log tore through the Arabia’s hull and she sank within minutes. Despite the speed of the sinking and the fact that there was only one lifeboat, the crew managed to get all the passengers safely to shore. Within a few days the boat was entirely covered in silt and disappeared, another of the hundreds of casualties on the river.

In 1987, the Hawley family led a salvage crew in search of the Arabia and found her. The river had shifted since then and the boat now lay half a mile from the water’s edge and 45 feet under a farmer’s field. A massive operation began to lower the water level, remove countless tons of earth, and carefully clean off and examine the ship and its contents.

%Gallery-162722%The wet silt had preserved the ship remarkably. The storage rooms were nearly intact, with boxes full of merchandise intended for frontier shops. There were cleaned, cataloged, and preserved and the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, opened to show off the amazing find.

This museum is an amazing snapshot of history. Every possible item imaginable is there: from guns and boots to toys and a complete printing press. There are even jars of preserves. Most of the passengers’ personal belongings sank with the ship and so we have complete outfits and luggage for the hardy travelers seeking a new life in the Old West. Large sections of the boat are also on display, including the paddle wheel and anchor.

Check out the gallery for a small sample of what this incredible museum has to offer.

Another steamboat has surfaced recently. Station WLFI reports that a long drought has lowered the level of the Missouri River enough that the steamboat Montana, sunk in 1884, is now visible at Bridgeton, MO. National Geographic has an interesting article on this steamboat, the largest ever to ply the Missouri, and its ironic end. It sank after running into a railroad bridge. Railroads were what eventually killed the steamboat trade.

Reenacting the Civil War’s first important battle

Civil War, Missouri, Trans-Mississippi Civil War
The Civil War started early in Missouri. In 1854 fighting flared up over whether the neighboring Kansas Territory would become a slave state. Pro-slavery Missourians raided Kansas to kill and intimidate abolitionists, and Kansans raided Missouri, killing slave owners and liberating slaves.

When the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, Missouri was already prepared for an all-out fight, yet nobody knew which side it would take. While Missouri’s legislature and much of its population supported the South, its large German-American population and many of its cities and towns were Unionist.

The Confederates made the first move. The secessionist State Guard camped on the edge of St. Louis, supposedly for their annual drill but really planning on taking the Federal arsenal. The local Federal commander, a hotheaded professional soldier named Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, gathered several units of soldiers, surrounded the State Guard camp, and forced them to surrender. The move caused a riot in the city in which one soldier and 27 civilians died. It looked like the war was on.

%Gallery-124755%Then everyone hesitated. Leaders from both sides met in St. Louis to try to salvage the situation. Heading the rebel delegation was Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor. The Union delegation made the mistake of bringing Lyon along. The devoted abolitionist had no illusions about the possibility of peace. He shouted at the Confederates that he’d rather kill every man, woman, and child in Missouri rather than have the state dictate terms to the Federal government.

That was that. Price and Jackson took a train from St. Louis west to the state capital at Jefferson City in the center of the state, but decided there were too many abolitionist German immigrants in town for comfort. They decided to gather their forces at Boonville, a prosperous, and secessionist, town 50 miles west on the Missouri river. Soon state militiamen and excited farm boys were rallying to the cause in Boonville, ready to fight the Yankees.

Lyon and 2,000 troops arrived at Jefferson City on June 15 to find the rebellious state government had fled to Boonville. They set out to meet them in a flotilla of steamboats.

While the rebels should have been led by Sterling Price, he came down with a bout of cholera and was home stinking up the outhouse. Command fell to Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, Governor Jackson’s nephew, who had resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in order to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Marmaduke didn’t want to fight. His “army” numbered about 1,500. Few had any training and only about a third of them were armed. Yet Governor Jackson insisted they make a stand. He feared a retreat would lead to the disintegration of their nascent army.

On the morning of June 17, Lyon landed about seven miles east of Boonville with 1,500 men. Marmaduke, alerted to the danger, marched about 500 of his men to the top of a long ridge four miles east of Boonville. The terrain was good, with a wheat field to hide his inferior numbers, and a house to hide sharpshooters in.

Lyon’s professional troops, accompanied by a battery of cannon, marched along the river road towards town. Soon rebel pickets fired at them, then quickly withdrew in the face of such a large force. The Union troops soon found themselves facing the long, low hill atop which Marmaduke and his men waited. Lyon ordered the cannon unlimbered and the battery sent shot after shot onto the ridge as the Union infantry slowly advanced.

Gritting their teeth and trying to ignore the cannonballs whirring through the air around them, the rebels shot at the advancing troops. Their untrained fire proved inaccurate, and the Union ranks moved resolutely forward. Their artillery knocked two holes into the wall of the house, forcing the rebels inside to run. Marmaduke ordered a general retreat.

A few Confederates made a second line on the top of another hill. Once again the two sides poured fire at each other, and once again Union discipline and marksmanship took their toll. The rebels retreated once more, this time in complete disarray. Accounts vary, but it seems that there were about a dozen casualties on either side.

The first Union victory in Missouri had taken only twenty minutes. The Confederates ran so fast both sides ended up calling it the “Boonville Races.”

The Battle of Boonville had a significance far out of proportion to its size. The Union now controlled the Missouri River, which cut from west to east through the center of the state. The northern counties never got to organize in support of the Confederacy. The river also kept open a vital Federal supply line to Kansas. If the Confederates had been able to hold onto it, Kansas and the loyal territories to the west would have been nearly cut off. While the Confederates continued to fight for Missouri, the prosperous state with its industry and agriculture was never under any serious threat of falling into their hands.

Although there were a few little skirmishes before this like those at Philippi, West Virginia, and Bethel Church, Virginia, the Battle of Boonville was the first battle to have an effect on the outcome of the war.

Now to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Battle of Boonville will be refought. from June 17-19 there will be reenactments, talks, and living history demonstrations. I’ve been to several reenactments in Missouri and the folks that do them really know their history and put on a great show. If you’re in the area, be sure to mark your calendar.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Frank James, Jesse James, Civil War
Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]

History’s Most Famous Travel Adventures

There is no doubt that history has a level of influence on the places that many of us visit. We read about far off places and exotic adventures, and it fires our own imaginations, sometimes compelling us to take a journey of our own, and experience the things that we’ve dreamed about.

Forbes Traveler has put together an excellent list of the greatest travel adventures from history, not only putting them in historical context, but also explaining why they remain a great travel experience even to this day. Each of the journeys on this list include a link to a travel service than can help organize your own adventure, following in the footsteps of explorers and adventurers from the past.

Some of the famous journeys that make the list include the Lewis and Clarke Expedition’s exploration of the American West, which modern day travelers can experiencing for themselves by spending five days paddling more than 60 miles of the Missouri River. Prefer something a bit more exotic? Then how about a 34-day, 4850+ mile journey through South America, by motorcycle no less, that retraces the travels of Che Guevara. Want to go even further back in time? Then head to the Far East to travel the Silk Road, much the same way that Marco Polo did in the 13th century.

There is a little something for everyone on this list, from the physically demanding to the luxurious. But they all share one thing in common, they are some of the greatest journeys in history, and they are still inspiring travel years, and sometimes centuries, later.

Riverboat gambling along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi

Martha’s post on gambling hot spots made me think of gambling boats that head away from shore to give passengers time to make or lose money. It seems a bit romantic–rolling the dice while rolling on the river.

Several states allow travelers to indulge in trying out Lady Luck, and each state’s riverboat cruise experience varies due to the state’s laws. You might be on a historic style boat that evokes images of days gone by–Mark Twain comes to mind, or be docked on a flat barge that doesn’t go anywhere. From what I’ve heard, this is a fairly inexpensive way to have a boat ride if you don’t gamble. I have relatives who’ve headed to Lawrenceburg, Indiana to partake in Argosy’s flavor. Since they aren’t the biggest gamblers, they enjoyed the food, but thought the several hours that Indiana’s law requires gambling boats to be out on the river a trifle long.

The Web site Riverboat Casinos lists the riverboat casinos, state by state, and provides helpful info about each. Argosy is the casino in Indiana where you are more likely to win. Too bad my relatives didn’t know this.